Tag: oscar isaac

Operation Finale


Operation Finale (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Operation Finale” is like a car that has stalled—it requires a bit of push in order to get going. But once it is over the hump, the ride is suspenseful, thrilling, and also quite surprising at times. The plot is based on a true story involving a team of Jewish operatives who are tasked to capture Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley), a war criminal considered to be one of the masterminds of the Final Solution—the systematic extermination of six million Jews in Nazi Germany—who is hiding, along with his family, in Buenos Aires. The Mossad agents must get him on a plane bound for Israel so he can be prosecuted for his crimes. We know how it is going to end. But like all true stories that undergo dramatization, what matters most is the details.

The first quarter of the picture is mildly interesting but messy. First, the many pieces that must be juggled are not handled with a high enough level of energy designed to combust and propel the significance of the mission. It goes by the assumption that the viewer already has knowledge of the monstrosities the Nazis had done to the Jews during World War II—a mistake because not everyone is well-versed in history. (Yes, even a mass genocide that each person should know about. You’d be surprised.)

This leads to the second shortcoming: the many faces and personalities introduced are not provided informative or relatable background information. And so when the Mossad agents finally do get together, we know only one or two of their names. There are seven of them—at least. One might argue, however, that this is the point: the operatives are but a part of a mission—expendable should they fail. But I argue that is important that we have understanding of at least half of them.

The reason is because the picture is a drama at its core, not a fictional action-thriller. The film is not about stunts or action sequences but the psychology of the Israeli secret agents, their anger, their hunger for justice. There is sporadic talk of agents having lost loved ones in concentration camps. Thus, it is critical that we have an appreciation of where each agent is coming from, to have a specific perspective of a mission so monumental, that failure could mean injustice for those who perished, perhaps forever.

The material’s strength is most undeniable once Eichmann is in the hands of the Mossad agents. They must stay in the safe house for ten days due to flight delay—without arousing suspicion. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s fellow Nazis, including his son (Joe Alwyn), inch closer toward the safe house. Every minute counts. And every scene is a march toward an inevitable conclusion.

Oscar Isaac plays Peter Malkin, a man still haunted by the death of his sister and her children. Isaac’s interpretation of Malkin is fascinating because the motivation is not anger first and foremost. Malkin, the character, does not seem to be aware of this initially. But we do because we see it in Isaac’s eyes when he is alone, how he moves, how he thinks through an objective, short- and long-term. The opening scene is most telling: Malkin is horrified when he learns his team ended up killing the wrong Nazi. Meanwhile, his fellow agent is blasé because the person they killed is still a Nazi after all.

And then there is Kingsley, accomplishing so much with so little. Notice that although a blindfold is covering half of his face and his head is in profile relative to the camera, while sitting in a dark room, his presence is able to overpower the space and those around him should he choose to do so. Most suspenseful—and worthy of contemplation—are interactions between Kingsley and Isaac exactly because the screenplay by Matthew Oerton is willing to take a look at evil, not to judge it or indulge it but to examine it. It dares us to consider the humanity of Eichmann specifically—not the Nazis as a group—while at the same time tasking us to sift through his lies, manipulations, and possible power play.

Triple Frontier


Triple Frontier (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Planning and executing a heist in order to steal over seventy-five million dollars from a drug lord in the middle of the Colombian jungle is only about a third of the fun in “Triple Frontier,” co-written by Mark Boal and J.C. Chandor, an adrenaline-fueled and entertaining action picture saddled with occasional dialogue regarding guilt and morality. The attempt to humanize the characters, all of whom are former Special Forces, is appreciated, but the work is most enjoyable when guns are armed and the men must depart hurriedly before they are outnumbered and flanked by the enemy.

The star-studded cast is made up of Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Pedro Pascal, and Garrett Hedlund. Each one is able to bring something special to the table, not relying simply on their looks or celebrity persona to cruise through the material. The screenwriters ensure to communicate why each member of the heist team is critical to the mission. Particularly important is why Santiago (Isaac) is the leader even though he is not the strongest, or smartest, or even the most technologically savvy. More generic action films tend to reduce team leaders as archetypes. Here, we are given a chance to appreciate specific moments when our central protagonist, for instance, is being pragmatic, weak, emotional, empathetic. He holds himself accountable when things go right and, perhaps more importantly, when things go south.

There is a wonderful rapport among the cast which makes us believe that the soldiers have shared a strong history. When they get together, although there is the expected hugging and patting on the back, we are able to capture recognition in their eyes. This is where Chandor’s direction comes into play. He gives time for the men acclimate to one another after years of separation instead of simply parading one breathless action piece right after another. It shows that we are in the hands of a patient filmmaker, the helmer of high caliber works—“All is Lost” being one of them.

Shoot ‘em up scenes command tension because we care for the soldiers who decide they now want a big piece of the pie after years of hardships yet not having much to show for it. Another reason is that suspense is allowed to build and swell until it can no longer be sustained. An excellent example is the well-planned robbery. There is far too much money to be put in bags but so little time. We can almost hear the clock ticking because every second counts. Every room entered that contains no money feels all the more disappointing. But when finally faced with stacks upon stacks of cash, the characters we think we know change almost instantaneously. It becomes one of those movies where the viewer is compelled to yell instructions at the screen—in a good way.

Another element that separates the work from other action flicks is its use of setting. Instead of relying on action scenes that take place indoors—a house, a building—it takes advantage of the beautiful South American landscapes: jungles, mountains, farms, beaches. In a way, doing so adds a level of thrill because being out in the open space constantly puts our protagonists at a disadvantage. They could be seen from afar and wouldn’t know it until a rain of bullets come flying.

Suburbicon


Suburbicon (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” is an excellent example of how incredibly difficult it is to pull off a great dark comedy. Get the tone wrong in the slightest and nearly everything becomes displaced in such a way that the entire work trips on its own feet eventually and falls to the ground with a deafening thud. There is potential in this twisty 1950s tale that takes place in an all-white community that is jolted by a black family moving into the neighborhood, but it does not possess the requisite balance of subtlety and obvious—as well as when to shatter such a state of equilibrium and perform truly shocking tonal acrobatics.

The material is written by the Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Clooney and Grant Heslov, and it requires a perspicuous eye and sound judgment considering that it tackles an enchilada of subjects, from the consequences of a home invasion seen through the eyes of a child, a scam gone horribly awry, and the prejudice of a supposedly warm and loving community. The strategy is almost always to hammer the audience with the obvious, afraid that the point will be missed by those who cannot be bothered to pause and think.

What results is an overwhelming feeling that the director can do so much more to tell an enthralling story but choosing the laziest option instead just so the work can be digested much more easily. By doing so, it sacrifices or dilutes what the story is about: the complexity of human motivations and the role of coincidence and irony when we are convinced we are in complete control of a situation. About halfway through the picture, a list of directors made its way on my mind like a marquee: the Coen Brothers, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noé—all uncompromising filmmakers who would rather assume their viewers are intelligent and so they create specific stories without worry that such tales would come across as inaccessible or obscure. In addition, they have a knack for creating images that seep into the mind and their impact is felt days or weeks later.

I enjoyed some of the performances. Noah Jupe is quite wonderful as Nick who becomes suspicious that his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (Julianne Moore) might be up to something sinister right after his mother (also played by Moore) had died. Observe as he holds is own against veteran performers who are more than capable of changing the tone and mood of conversations at a drop of a hat. His terror, never one-dimensional because he adjusts the dial depending on the rhythm of impressions and disclosures, brings to mind a forgotten gem called “Parents,” a story, also set in the 1950s, about a boy who becomes convinced that mom and dad are serving human meat on the dinner table and so he decides to stop eating. With the excellent comedy-drama “Wonder” under his belt and a solid performance here, Jupe is absolutely one to watch.

Another combustible performance is delivered by Oscar Isaac. To describe his role is to spoil some of the fun, but suffice to say that he brings a level of humor and wit at a point when the story desperately needs rationality. The character is designed to pester and I wished the character had been introduced much earlier on in the film because the mystery is not really a mystery for those that have seen a handful of mid- to late-1940s thrillers. I grew a bit bored because the material takes its time to dance around the obvious.

Despite numerous symbolisms and foreshadowings, somehow we see right through “Suburbicon” as if it were air—the material being so thin of intrigue, it fails to excite us, intellectually or emotionally, despite some incendiary and relevant topics it dares to tackle. Clooney’s playfulness with tone—and at times his lack of control of it—is an incorrect approach when the story demands that what we see, feel, and think about cut like a scalpel across the throat.

Annihilation


Annihilation (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based upon the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, offers a handful of images so bizarre, so intriguing, so horrifying that they stun the viewers into silence with mouth agape. This is the picture at its most powerful because it dares the viewer to look at the images closely; to examine their layers, colors, and textures; to imagine how they work on cellular and molecular levels; and to be terrorized by them. It is rare when sci-fi and horror collide to form a near-perfect fit. However, it falls just short of its maximum potential.

Debris from outer space hits a lighthouse. A strange translucent veil forms around the beacon and proceeds to expand its borders. There is fear that soon it will envelop nearby towns and cities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as The Shimmer and it is their goal to understand its cause and nature. Military personnel sent inside its growing borders to gather information have never returned… with the exception of Kane (Oscar Isaac), the partner of Johns Hopkins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Hoping to find answers regarding her partner’s disappearance for over a year, Lena, a former soldier, volunteers to go inside The Shimmer with a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). They are not prepared for what they are about to discover.

Garland has a way of commanding the story in such a way that we are immediately placed in the middle of it. It is admirable how he is confident enough as writer-director to allow the audience to orient themselves and ask many questions. For some reason, many filmmakers within as well as outside the sci-fi genre are afraid to make the viewers feel uncomfortable or frustrated early on and so exposition—a whole lot of it to the point where at times the story never gets a chance to take off—is often utilized as bridge between introduction and action. Here, however, it is assumed that the people watching are intelligent, patient, and curious. The film is efficient with its time.

I admired the material most when the journey through The Shimmer screeches to a halt in order for us to have a chance to take a closer look at an organism. An alligator is not just an alligator, nor a bear just a bear. We note of the plants and flowers, where they are growing, and how, what is strange about them. We even get to appreciate molds growing on surfaces nearby carcasses. Human body parts are also fair game. And abandoned cameras almost always contain a horrifying recording. You learn to prepare yourself eventually. You take a deep breath and look. But then just as quickly you realize one cannot be prepared for these kind of nightmarish images. I was tickled by how disturbed I felt.

Although the film is not about characters but about generating visceral reactions, I felt as though a camaraderie amongst the explorers is nearly nonexistent. The characters do not need to be friends, but the performers do need to share strong chemistry. Note how the actors come across somewhat detached from one another and so the dialogue shared among them, especially when they are supposed to be connecting when personal histories are broached, lack a special punch. However, an argument can be made that the volunteers are so terrified that perhaps the sense of detachment is purposeful, that it is required they focus on their own selves and their own survival.

But without excuse is a weak final five minutes. Especially problematic for me is the would-be daring final shot that is supposed to incite questions. I could not and did not buy into it because such an approach is generic, so common in pedestrian sci-fi films. While it is not required that we get precise answers, and I prefer that we don’t, it is essential that we walk out of the story not feeling cheated. I felt cheated because the final image, despite the wealth of images the material has presented up to this point, is entirely unoriginal.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi


Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Thrilling, visually resplendent, and high on entertainment value, the eighth “Star Wars” picture is, upon closer inspection, an attempt to push the series toward fresh territory while honoring the spirit of the beloved original trilogy. It stands strong amongst the cream of the crop with enough genuinely surprising twists and interesting character direction to pique the interest of observant and emotionally invested viewers. In the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson, “The Last Jedi” opens up a promising uncharted universe, an outstanding achievement because the series is already is so rich in lore, curiosities, and possibilities.

Its striking visual style is made apparent right from the opening sequence. Naturally, it involves blowing things up and yet we are invited to notice minute details. What I loved about 1977’s “A New Hope” is the look of a lived-in future. No matter where we end up, whether it be on a scorching desert, an asteroid field, man-made floating cities hiding behind clouds or outer space, surfaces almost always have dust, moss, or some kind of outer covering. Items appear old or second-hand but the attitude behind the events surrounding these inanimate objects, in addition to the people who interact with or wield them, their spirit, their energy, is young, vibrant, waiting to reach a crescendo with the slightest touch.

Although the action is most impressive, particularly dogfights that require eye-popping and brow-raising acrobatics, it can be argued that the film’s strongest moments involve longing silences, young and worn characters looking at each other knowingly, engaging in tense exchanges that could alter the tide of war between The First Order and the Resistance, the latter desperate and dwindling in number.

Out of three parallel storylines, most intriguing is Rey (Daisy Ridley), tyro and earnest but strong with the Force, attempting to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his self-imposed isolation and join the fight for the galaxy. The overall tone, compared to the rest of the picture, is spiritual, questioning. Shades of blue, gray, and green dominate the screen. We hear nature rather than whirring of machines and explosions. The pacing is unhurried, unconcerned with creating a typical arc to garner tension, prone to rumination.

Familiar characters are given more personality this time around. For example, in the predecessor, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is introduced as an ace fighter pilot, clearly a key player in the Resistance. However, we simply accept the character as he is introduced. Here, however, it is shown why Dameron is a leader, his competencies as well as his shortcomings. We are even introduced to his type of humor. Jokes and situational comedies almost always fit the occasion or characters involved. When the writing is specific and takes risks, the allure of the “Star Wars” universe is all the more amplified.

A filmmaker’s goal, or what should be his or her goal, is to put one’s unique stamp on a project, whether it be for mainstream consumption or a niche audience. Here, I got a strong impression that the “Star Wars” installment that Johnson respects most, his beacon, is “A New Hope.” It is in how he picks up themes brought up in that film and makes them his own rather seamlessly without relying on overt images or fan service. Most importantly, the writer-director is willing to take the next step and to give the franchise a chance to evolve. However, putting one’s own stamp on a popular franchise comes with a cost: it is certain to antagonize audiences who are not yet ready to look to the future.

Ex Machina


Ex Machina (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer, gets an opportunity of a lifetime when he is informed that he has been chosen to visit his employer’s massive and isolated estate. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a programming prodigy, has a project so secret that Caleb is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before he is told a thing. Soon it is revealed to the lucky winner that he has been invited to evaluate whether the artificial intelligence that his boss created is truly conscious. Ava (Alivia Vikander) is the latest and most impressive design yet.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Ex Machina” is an impressive work because, like the great ruminative science fiction pictures that came before, it understands the art of patience. It takes its time to dazzle us with its imagery—particularly the special and visual effects involving the android—to make us think about where the story is going, and to instill a sense of wonder in us despite its limited universe.

The three central characters do not feel like one-dimensional sticks struggling to come out of the page. Gleeson, Isaac, and Vikander all have a je ne sais quoi, a presence, that when he or she utters a line, a thoughtful viewer might pick up on certain intonations and wonder if their characters mean something else entirely. The enigma is heightened by Garland’s direction. There are very few sudden camera movements. They simply flow as if it intended to protect us from being pushed out of the film’s mesmerizing, zen-like rhythm.

There are philosophical discussions about what makes a being human but they are never overbearing nor so didactic that it comes across like we are dropping into the middle of a lecture. Instead, certain lines and points come up naturally that feel precisely relevant to a character’s perspective. Particularly engaging are the exchanges between Nathan and Caleb. Both are intelligent young men, but we get to determine exactly which is more clever or more astute when it comes to certain subjects. That is exciting because there are not enough screenplays, within and outside of this genre, where differences among characters are communicated with such vibrancy.

The look of the picture is inviting. Shades of soft lighting and well-lit corners draw us in. Given that Nathan’s estate is both an elegant living space and a research facility, I found myself wanting to control the camera and focus on the little trinkets in various corners. This is why my favorite scene involves Nathan showing Caleb the parts of his AI, particularly the so-called wetware that is homologous to a brain. When the camera is focused on particular objects, I felt like I was in a museum, wishing to know every detail of foreign objects like how they work, what they are made out of, and what could happen to a system if a certain piece were missing.

“Ex Machina” is the kind of film where it is best that one decides to go into it blind. Part of the fun is to discover the little twists and turns as the tension mounts. Although the third act could have used a little bit of rewrite and polish, which makes it a bit less exemplary, I admired that it remained true to itself by taking its time as well as risks.

Agora


Agora (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

As the Roman Empire inches closer toward the precipice of collapse at the end of fourth century A.D., the tension among Pagans, Christians, and Jews, too, inches toward a boiling point. Alexandria, one of Egypt’s most celebrated cities, is somehow able to resist the rippling effects of politics outside its walls—at least on the surface. When Christians insult Serapis, an Egyptian god, by throwing vegetables at his statue, Theon (Michael Lonsdale), a scholar and a mathematician as well as the director of the famed Library of Alexandria, decides that a full-scale attack is necessary to defend their god’s honor.

“Agora,” written by Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil, is interesting in that it seems to purposefully subvert its natural epic scale, the politics, for a smaller story which involves a sort of love triangle between Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Davus (Max Minghella), her slave, and Hypatia and Orestes (Oscar Isaac), her student.

The root of the film is Hypatia, a philosopher and astronomer, and her unending quest to find an answer as to why, if Earth really did revolve around the sun in a circle, the sun seemed closer or farther depending on the season. Although we know the answer she is desperately looking for, we remain interested in her quest for answers. Dialogue involving geocentrism and heliocentrism aside, it is captivating because Weisz has a way of drawing us into the loneliest and coldest rooms of her character’s mind.

She looks breathtakingly beautiful as the character but she is wise not to rest on her physicality. She employs her eyes and limbs to convey wisdom and curiosity as well as what might happen if an imbalance threatened the mind of an intellectual. The best scenes does not compose of glorious aerial and ground shots of men hunting other men and women with weapons fighting over conflicting beliefs but the interactions among Hypatia and the two young men who want to be with her.

Davus and Orester have never met anyone like her and so they respect her. The screenplay allows us to understand with clarity why they wish to be with Hypatia. I enjoyed the romantic angle not because she will not let them into her world but because she is unable to; the questions about the cosmos are more important to her than being with a man. However, I wished that Davus and Orestes are as fleshed out as Hypatia outside of their feelings toward her.

Perhaps the lack of character depth involving the two can be attributed to the time jump about half-way through. While necessary in order to move the story forward and for us to experience the power behind the repercussions of unwise decisions, it does not excuse Davus and Orestes not leaving much to do or say when Hypatia is absent from the equation.

“Agora,” directed by Alejandro Amenábar, is proud to be about ideas and yet it is unafraid to show the violence of clash among disparate faiths. The set and relics are very convincingly Egyptian, so detailed, and when such objects are destroyed, I watched in horror. I felt as though I was ensconced in the world that the characters inhabit.